Education in prison is changing. An economy that is increasingly dependent on technology-based careers has caused many prisoners to put down the blowtorch and pick up a keyboard mouse. In the northwestern-most corner of Washington state, a contract with a local community college is providing cutting-edge education programs to inmates, enabled by modern technology. In some cases, inmates who had never used a computer before are now coding, using resources provided on a local network loaded with much of the educational content found online.

The Clallam Bay Corrections Center (CBCC) and Olympic Corrections Center offer inmates courses in baking, computer game design and development, green building carpentry, horticulture, and small business entrepreneurship, among others.

Such programs reduce recidivism rates among offenders by 43 percent, according to an analysis conducted by the RAND Corp. The courses were also found to increase the likelihood of an inmate finding a job outside prison by 13 percent. A study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that the benefits of reduced crime and reduced recidivism allow for a return of more than $13 per dollar invested in vocational programs, adult basic education and post-secondary education in prison.

The most important element of prison education, which is increasingly enabled by modern technology, is that offenders can leave prison with hope, feeling like they have options, said Brian Walsh, education director for Clallam Bay and Olympic corrections centers.

“These guys get this experience and it helps them change how they see themselves,” Walsh said. “They learn they can be creative. To run a bakery, you have to be able to work with other people, and they can see that their time in prison can be positive and that it’s not just a waste of time and that’s the key thing.”

The food at the prison is, naturally, terrible, Walsh said, but their bakery creates delicious pastries and is believed to be one of the only bakeries on the Olympic peninsula that makes challah, a traditional Jewish bread. In true Northwest fashion, the inmates grind their own flour, grown at a local organic farm, and the rye bread loaves and various pastries the prisoners make are sold at an organic co-op outside the prison. The idea, Walsh said, is to boost the inmates’ self-esteem by showing them that they can be constructive and create something of value, and that includes not just engaging in practices as old as bread, but also doing things as new as making computer games.

Traditionally, when people think of vocational prison programs, they think of welding or woodworking. While welders are still in high demand, Walsh said there's an increasing demand for technology-based jobs, too. Many inmates choose game design and development because the game design industry is big in the Northwest.

“Most games are essentially a really fancy database with a visual laid over it, so you learn a lot more about software than if you were just to teach website design,” Walsh said. “We had an inmate who had never used a computer in his life. He’d been down for 15 years, and he’s now doing three-dimensional design work using Blender, which is open source software. When you give somebody that opportunity and they really want to learn, they’ll learn it.”

The local prison intranet provides prisoners with access to many tools reflective of a changing education system outside of prison. Online courses offered by well respected institutions like MIT, Harvard, and Berkeley through edX are changing how the country looks at education. Prisoners at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center and Olympic Corrections Center are allowed access to many such tools, including a reduced set of Khan Academy lectures and lessons, courses from the National Repository of Open Resources, and additional resources from the Corrections Offline Educational Platform.

Most of Walsh’s students have a lot of free time outside of the classroom and they’re constantly asking for more things to do, he said. For this reason, Walsh said he hopes to soon obtain low-cost tablets that will support a flipped classroom model in which students listen to lectures outside of class and get personalized help and do work inside of class. This is particularly helpful for a prison setting, Walsh said, because everyone is at a different level in their education.

One inmate who had not graduated high school was able to get his GED after following the lectures and activities provided by Khan Academy, Walsh said, and more inmates could follow suit if they had the ability to study outside the classroom.

In the game design and development classes, students learn programming languages like C# and C++ and participate in weekly challenges like designing computer games using the Unity game development platform. One creation was a zombie game and the other was a side-scrolling adventure game.

Another student, who ran a paintball business before being incarcerated, learned Web design and SQL. He created a paintball site from scratch with social media elements and appointment scheduling. “He went from knowing nothing to making what I think looks like a professional website,” Walsh said, adding that he could potentially sell the product he made to other businesses.

In a blog post published on WhiteHouse.gov, Walsh, a former White House Champion of Change for his efforts at the correctional facilties, wrote about his students. “I like to tell people that we have some of the best students imaginable. They do all their homework, even the questions that aren’t assigned. They don’t interrupt class with their cellphone. They come to class wanting to be there and knowing that it is the best opportunity they have in prison for a quiet, meaningful way to serve their sentence.”

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog.